Thursday, June 15, 2017

Erewhon by Samuel Butler

The books-within-the-book are better than the book itself
Erewhon, a novel by Samuel Butler, was originally published anonymously in 1872. Though often described as a utopian novel, it is a satirical take on the genre that satirizes English society during the Victorian Era. The unnamed narrator leaves England to manage a sheep ranch in a distant land, likewise unnamed. While overseeing his flocks, he becomes curious about the country that exists beyond the adjacent mountain range. Despite discouraging warnings from his native employee, Chowbok, the narrator decides to explore the uncharted territory in hopes of discovering a possibly lucrative commercial enterprise in trade or resource extraction.

After five chapters of walking, he enters into the unknown nation, known by its inhabitants as Erewhon. The Erewhonians do not welcome this outsider with open arms, but they do treat him relatively hospitably and assign him to a sort of probationary house arrest under the supervision of the Nosnibor family. The traveler quickly learns the language of his hosts and soon discovers marked differences between Erewhonian society and the customs of the outside world. In Erewhon, for instance, illness is considered a crime, while criminals are treated as if they were ill.

Variations on this one theme take up half the book. Butler beats the sick/criminal dichotomy like a dead horse, taking it into realms of absurdity that call to mind the satirical humor of Jonathan Swift’s novel Gulliver’s Travels, only not as funny. Butler then goes on to lampoon the banking system, organized religion, and higher education, among other topics. Perhaps I had too much hope for a real utopian novel, but I kept expecting the criticism to eventually become constructive, and it never did. Instead it just seemed to get more and more pointless. If I were a 19th-century Englishman I might consider this a work of genius, but as a 21st-century American, much of the humor was lost on me, and I found the book very tedious.

Thankfully, there were exceptions. One interesting aspect of Erewhon is that although they at one time had the capability to produce advanced technology, they decided as a society to voluntarily shun machinery in favor of a more medieval existence. A major reason for this opting towards Luddism is attributed to the publication of a volume called "The Book of the Machines," which is summarized in Chapters 23 to 25. The author of this fictional tome proposes that machines have begun to exhibit signs of Darwinian evolution, and he warns that eventually they will gain consciousness and rebel against humanity. These chapters are a fascinating and well-reasoned speculation on artificial intelligence. Even in the 19th century, Butler was prescient enough to presage Skynet from the Terminator movies and the Butlerian Jihad from Frank Herbert’s Dune books (Butlerian/Butler: Coincidence or not?). This is the most successful portion of Butler’s book precisely because it makes the least effort to be funny.

Butler follows this with a farcical look at vegetarianism vs. carnivorism vs. veganism, which serves to mock the prevailing anthropocentric worldview. In Chapter 27, however, an Erewhonian philosopher expounds on the intelligence of plants in an essay which is just as ingenious and thought-provoking as "The Book of the Machines." It is in these books-within-the-book, which break away from the main narrative, where Butler’s writing really shines. The rest of Erewhon I really didn’t care for. I would encourage readers to read these exceptional sections as independent essays and just skip the rest.
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